Does the Marvel Universe Work Better in Videogames Than Cinema?

A few weeks ago, the UK Independent had an op-ed arguing that Marvel’s creations are better suited to video games than the silver screen:

 

Last year, Martin Scorsese (in)famously bemoaned the domination of comic book adaptations at Hollywood studios, saying they were “not cinema”, and likening them to “theme parks”. Producers, filmmakers and actors from across the MCU rushed to put out statements disputing Scorsese’s claims; it’s fair to say he had hit a nerve. But while most comic book fans seemed to view the Goodfellas director’s words as slander, perhaps they would have been better off embracing them. There’s already a format that feels custom-built for the exploits of Stan Lee’s colourfully clad ubermen – not cinema, but video games.

The suitability of video games as the ultimate platform for superhero adaptation has been obvious for decades; as far back as the late 1970s and 1980s, savvy developers were churning out crude 2D games featuring Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Of course, modern adaptations – such as 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man on PlayStation 4, or Marvel’s Avengers, out in September – are different beasts. Iron Man VR, released on PS4 last Friday, represents a new frontier for the genre – the vicarious theme park thrill distilled into its purest conceptional form. Placing you in the shoes of billionaire hero Tony Stark, the game taps into the central appeal of superhero narratives, giving you the power of flight itself (or an enjoyable imitation, at least).

Superheroes have always been rooted in wish fulfilment and fantasies of power. Video games are perhaps the fullest realisation of this, giving players the agency to use unnatural abilities as they see fit. To paraphrase Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, video games offer a sense of great power, with none of the responsibility.

Perhaps the watershed moment for superhero games came in 2009, with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Set within the boundaries of the fictional Gotham prison, Asylum was engrossing, unfiltered Batman. Whether you were beating swarms of enemies to a pulp, gliding around environments with batlike stealth, or deploying one of several mechanical gadgets, it all felt right – more authentically nailing the tone of (some of) the comics than any film has ever managed. The Independent called it and the first of its sequels, 2011’s Batman: Arkham City, “two of the best action games ever made”. Superhero films may often struggle for validation in the world of cinema, but in games, they have shown they can spar with the best of ’em.

 

The Bat-game may have been a watershed landmark, but as somebody who feels the whole Bat-franchise became grossly overused and overexposed, to say nothing short of over-influencing much of the DCU, I’m going to have to take issue with the above being touted as such a great example, and in addition, I personally question whether a game set almost entirely within the confines of a prison complex rather than a whole city/county makes the perfect fare for adventure. Besides, according to the article, these games can require over 10-plus hours to accomplish, far more than those of my childhood that didn’t usually take that long (oh, I know these new ones usually have save-game options, but still). The article does have a point though, when it says:

 

There is a practical basis for this. Blockbusters have to prioritise story and characters – even the most garishly shallow superhero flicks still adhere to basic cinematic structures and conventions. Peter Parker will only spend about half of the time he’s on screen actually being Spider-Man – if you’re lucky. Video games also have storylines and character arcs, but they take up far less creative real estate. Instead, games inevitably focus on mechanics, and these mechanics have to be interesting. Superheroes are ideal subject matter, as they have their own unique game mechanics inbuilt. Play as the Hulk, in 2005’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, for instance, and the gameplay is built around demolition. Play Spider-Man, and you spend your time acrobatically swinging around the city. Content is allowed to dictate form in ways never permitted by mainstream cinema.

 

Oh yeah, this is true. Story or not, it’s the gameplay that’s usually the most crucial focus in such a medium, while in comics as much as movies, character focus is what makes the story click, ditto making action sequences entertaining, and even incorporating a sense of humor where it fits. Even so, I should reiterate I’m of the mindset that, much like movies, I see video games having taken away much of the focus and interest on the source material itself as a pastime. I just can’t accept that, and it’s exactly why comicdom’s become ghettoized in modern times.

 

And the article veers into needless bias with mention of another video game towards the end:

 

Video games also have the benefit of adjusted expectations. While the overall standards of writing and acting in games has improved in recent years – with standouts like this year’s The Last of Us Part II and indie games such as Disco Elysium raising the bar for literary quality – games have traditionally lagged behind older art forms when it comes to things like dialogue and thematic depth. Games like Spider-Man and Arkham Asylum do not find themselves straining for prestige, as films like Logan or Avengers: Endgame so conspicuously do, because they are judged on different merits. Being fun and frivolous is a boon – just look at how many units Nintendo shifts. If a game is compared to a theme park, it might just be the highest compliment.

 

Oh, they just had to join the biased chorus for a video game whose review ratings were apparently fixed, and is steeped in sickening violence, and, as I’ve discovered, injects some atrocious stereotypes and even political metaphors that make it all the more disturbing. I’d written earlier about how revolted I was by the producer’s whole approach, along with his eyebrow-raising support for Brian Bendis’ work, and I figure in the future, I’ll have to write more about what appears to be wrong with a video game that’s otherwise tanked in sales, much as the specialty press wants everyone to think otherwise.

 

The Punisher (Arcade/Capcom/1993) [720p]

 

 

Now in case I hadn’t mentioned, there were, in the 90s, some Marvel adaptations to video games produced mostly by Capcom, such as one based on the Punisher, and soon after, more notably, a couple of Street Fighter-formatted games that soon led to actual crossovers like X-Men vs. SF, and Marvel vs. Capcom. But even those eventually faltered due to political correctness, like this more recent example where, not only were there very few ladies in the selectable cast(!), Carol Danvers was kept in the Captain Marvel guise, even as the programmers were able to ensure that, unlike the abominable rendition by Kelly Sue deConnick in the mid-2010s, Carol could have more feminine features. Unfortunately, the PC obsession with forcibly changing past creations and throwing the babies out with the bath water had some palpably negative effect on the MvC Infinite game, and it led to the installment’s failure. Given how merchandise has taken too much precedence over the real deals, it’s hard to care at this point.

And I’m well aware there’s more recent examples of how far Marvel’s taken social justice tactics in their merchandise adaptations as much as the comics, and let’s not think DC’s incapable of the same. That’s why the time for Marvel working in video games at all is long past, and the ship’s sailed. If they can’t respect the original developments, these video games now in production lose all appeal.

 

 

Originally published here.

Avi Green

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON